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HBO dives into fresh waters with 'Euphoria,' a depiction of modern teenage life that's as gripping and gritty as 'The Wire'

Business Insider | Jun 15, 2019, 07.45PM IST

Euphoria HBO

Courtesy of HBO

"Euphoria."

  • HBO's upcoming teen-focused drama, "Euphoria," speaks more directly to young people than the network's other adult series.
  • The show, starring Zendaya and executive produced by Drake, comes as HBO is trying to grow its audience under the umbrella of AT&T's WarnerMedia.
  • It debuts Sunday, June 16 at 10 p.m.
  • Click here for a selection of BI Prime stories.

HBO's gritty high-school drama, "Euphoria," could open the network up to an audience of teens and young adults that it's only flirted with before.

"Euphoria," one of the most anticipated new shows of the summer, is a depiction of modern life as a middle-class American teen that is as harrowing as any episode of the HBO crime drama, "The Wire." The series, which premieres on Sunday in the US, takes an unflinchingly look at the struggles of young adults, including sex, drugs, identity, relationships, and social media, through the lens of 17-year-old high-school student, Rue Bennett, who is returning to school and life after a drug overdose and summer away at rehab.

It's a different - and darker - take on a typical teen drama.

Despite its provocative depiction of high school, early reviews of "Euphoria" have praised the stunning visuals, performances by its young stars, including Zendaya, and direction. The series was created and written by Sam Levinson, who also directed five episodes of the season.

Such acclaim is rare for teen-focused shows. But it's not unusual for HBO, which had the most Emmy wins for 16 years running until Netflix tied it last year. HBO is mainly known for its boundary-pushing adult dramas and comedies, like "The Sopranos" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Growing up, HBO style

Past HBO series like "Game of Thrones" and "Girls" have no doubt attracted young fans to the network, as have the kids and family programs that HBO has dabbled with, including recent seasons of "Sesame Street."

But the networks audience skews older.

HBO's five most watched shows live from the last 18 months were "Game of Thrones," "Real Time with Bill Maher," "Westworld," "Big Little Lies," and "Sharp Objects," according to Nielsen. The median ages of the 10 most watched HBO series live during that time were between 46 and 61, with "Game of Thrones" having the youngest and "Real Time with Bill Maher" having the oldest median age.

"Euphoria" speaks more directly to teens and young adults than other HBO series, such as "Chernobyl," about a 1986 nuclear disaster, or the family drama, "Big Little Lies." HBO is also trying its hand later this year at a young-adult fantasy series, "His Dark Materials," based on the Phillip Pullman novels.

The young-adult shows are hitting HBO at a time when the network is trying to grow its TV and streaming audience, after its parent company, WarnerMedia, was acquired by AT&T last year.

"The challenge is, not 100% of the customers expose themselves to the HBO brand," John Stankey, CEO of WarnerMedia, told HBO employees in July, after the deal with AT&T closed, Vox reported. "We've got ... to have this become a much more common product."

So far, growth at HBO's streaming service has been slower than at some of its competitors.

A May survey by RBC Capital Markets found that 21% of respondents in the US had watched HBO's online-subscription service, HBO Now, in the last 12 months, up from 18% a year ago. Rival services like Amazon Prime and Hulu had grown by double-digit percentage points during that time.

Read more: The share of Americans watching Amazon and Hulu has soared in recent months, while other streaming services lag behind

An adult show about teens

While "Euphoria" is about teens, the network says it's made for adults. It's meant to expose adults to the challenges of growing up in 2019, Casey Bloys, programming president at HBO, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Read more: HBO's upcoming teen drama 'Euphoria' is filled with graphic nudity, including a single scene that shows approximately 30 penises

Nonetheless, the show's cast and crew of 20-somethings is likely to attract a young crowd. Zendaya, a former Disney Channel star, who has since been in films like "Spider-Man: Homecoming," plays Rue. Hip-hop superstar Drake, who got his start on another controversial teen show, "Degrassi," executive produced the series. Drake and Zendaya have two of the 50 most followed accounts on Instagram, where they've been helping to promote "Euphoria."

The series is based on an Israeli drama set in the aftermath of a murder of a teen near a nightclub.

The HBO version grapples with controversial issues, in the vein of teen series like "Degrassi," "Skins," and Netflix's "13 Reasons Why" before it. But "Euphoria" has none of the comedic relief of "Skins" or the cautionary melodramatics of "Degrassi."

From the first four episodes, you might think that life as a modern teenager consists mainly of dick pics, webcam rendezvous, overdoses, and staying out all night, with a few forced family dinners in between.

"I was trying to capture the heightened sense of emotion when you're young and how relationships feel," Levinson, who created and wrote the series, told Entertainment Weekly. "The world feels like it's just constantly bearing down on you. That anxiety, and those sort of mood swings, I think, are inherent to being young - but even more so when you struggle with anxiety and depression and addiction."

Levinson struggled with drug abuse during his youth, and wanted to capture the pain of addiction, without also glorifying drug abuse. Many of the scenes in "Euphoria" are drawn from his own experiences.

"The hardest thing about portraying a drug addict is - there are a lot of cautionary tales, there are a lot of after-school specials - but what I really wanted to get to the core of is the pain and the shame about what you're doing and you're inability to get clean despite the havoc and destruction you're wreaking round you," Levinson said, at the ATX Television Festival, Deadline reported.

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